Two years after turning out a 1,000-page historical novel, the first in a planned trilogy spanning the 20th century, Ken Follett returns to strain the backs of booksellers and readers everywhere.
Much like the previous installment, Winter of the World clips along at a brisk pace. The historical novel takes readers inside the political battles and atrocities of Nazi-era Germany, fascists fighting a motley crew of European rebels in the Spanish Civil War, and disillusionment spanning the governments of Stalin’s Russia. Uncertainty reigns, too, amid the bombing blitz in Britain and America in the wake of Pearl Harbor.
Once again, Follett concentrates on five fictional, interrelated families to bring the period to life. “Winter of the World” begins in 1933 with the rise of Hitler and ends in the Cold War nuclear age. In between, the families, hailing from Russia, the United States, England, Germany, and Wales mingle with real characters, including FDR and Harry Truman.
Historical fiction, in the hands of Follett and other writers, remains the terrain of circumstance, coincidence, and cameos. The key, as with all novels, is to develop characters who evoke empathy or, at minimum, pique curiosity. Historical fiction, by its nature, ups the ante for the writer to come up with compelling people to match the real-life characters always threatening to overwhelm all else. How does an author’s creation fare in comparison to the horrible but fascinating character of Adolf Hitler?
In Follett’s hands, the answer is, surprisingly well. Lloyd Williams, an idealistic young Brit visiting Germany with his MP mother, becomes an assistant to a Social Democrat. During his brief stay, Lloyd witnesses Brownshirts killing a man because he’s gay and gets an up-close glimpse of Hitler.
The German leader’s voice, he thinks, is “harsh and grating, but powerful, reminding Lloyd of both a machine gun and a barking dog.”
At times, Follett falls into the trap of relying too much on dialogue to convey historical context. During a country club dance in pre-World War II Buffalo, some teenaged boys vie for a young beauty’s attention by debating FDR’s refusal to sign anti-lynching legislation.
“I know why he made that decision: he was afraid that angry Southern congressmen would retaliate by sabotaging the New Deal,” says Woody Dewar, the son of a US Senator. “All the same, I would have liked him to tell them to go to hell.”
It’s jarring to see unrequited teen love morph into Meet the Press. Still, these are minor faults in a book stuffed with pleasure for any lover of popular fiction.
Elsewhere, Follett’s passing observations lend authority while he gives readers the frisson of knowing what the characters can’t. Referring to a new, five-sided headquarters just opening as the new hub of the American military, the author mentions the contemporary penchant to start referring to the massive complex as, simply, the Pentagon.
More importantly, the likes of Lloyd Williams, Carla Von Ulrich, and Volodya Peshkov are each interesting, imperfect people straining to make sense of a world gone mad. Their journeys are plausible, intertwined, and intriguing. Though they often find themselves swept into history, these creations rarely speak, or live, as if on a stage. Instead, they stumble through messy relationships, harbor insecurities and jealousies and, on occasion, surprise themselves with acts of grace and courage as well as cowardice.
From a Russian thug-turned-American success story to a young Spanish girl leading covert border crossings, Follett keeps his characters interesting – and moving. Despite the length of the book, the author is well-served by his earlier role churning out tidy thrillers.
He knows how to keep the pages turning and how to make the reader feel a kinship with the characters’ struggles. A sequence detailing the plight of Allied forces during the D-Day invasion in 1944 reveals the jitters, boredom, and demands of preparing for battle.
Follett relates the literal heavy load borne by every soldier. Of their equipment, he writes, “They had too much. Some of it was essential: a carbine with 150 rounds of .30 ammunition; antitank grenades; a small bomb known as a Gammon grenade; K rations; water purifying tablets; a first-aid kit with morphine. Other things they might have done without: an entrenching tool, a shaving kit, a French phrase book.”
World War II may be considered a great war fought by the Greatest Generation, but Follett steers clear of glorifying battle. Instead, he shows its destructive nature in the field (“The corpses were stinking in the heat”), in London, Berlin, and other cities, and among the children, wives, and parents left behind to worry about the soldiers.
Follett has now sustained his tale through roughly 2,000 pages, with the second half of the 20th century still untapped. Next he faces the challenge of keeping the winning streak intact. And, of course, defining just when the century ends. Will Follett take us to the brink of 9-11, or leave readers with a sense of the unexpected horror ahead? No matter the ultimate destination, readers can expect to savor the journey – and agonize while waiting for the final book to arrive.
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.